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Taliban in-fighting?

May 15, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Hassan on video

An interesting angle regarding potential divisions within the Taliban has been picked up by the Long War Journal (“Taliban leader confirms in-fighting and vows revenge, plots to kill Quetta shura leadership”).

A Taliban commander, Mullah Hassan has criticised the Taliban leadership and blamed them for the death of another Taliban commander, Maulvi Ismail.  Ismail, a commander based in southern Afghanistan, was suspected of corruption and accused of entering into unauthorised talks with Afghan government.  He was reportedly arrested by Taliban fighters in April and executed.  Hassan, understood to be an ally of Ismail, also appears to be accused of similar activities.  Hassan has released a videotape in which he vows revenge on the Taliban leadership – in particular against Mullah Zakir, the leader of the Taliban Military Commission.  In the video, Hassan rejects in detail allegations against him and claimed he has been targeted because of his knowledge of historic crimes and conspiracies involving the Taliban senior leadership.  He accused members of the Quetta shura of corruption.

Analysis and Outlook

Information about the Taliban on any issue is hard to come by.  There is a risk that these sort of stories, when they do emerge, can get blown out of proportion, in part because crucial contextual information is not available, but also through the desires of the international community, the Afghan government and ISAF to hear stories that the Taliban are irretrievably weakened.  It would be extremely surprising if, given where we are in 2012, the Taliban did not have a certain amount of factional tension, including internal dispute and violence.

Cultural, historic, geographic and tribal factors helped establish and feed the existence of different Taliban factions.  This, in turn, ensures levels of friction, suspicion and rivalry that will ebb and flow, according to military and political developments .  The organisation is forced to operate in a much less than ideal fashion for security reasons – more specifically due to the extensive efforts of ISAF and the ANSF.  In addition, they are divided, broadly, between a strategic leadership based in Pakistan and the fighters operating on the ground in Afghanistan.  The issue of “talks” – even without anything approaching structured talks going on – is in the air and the absence of clarity is almost certainly generating rumours and uncertainty.  Finally, the media, combined with information operations from a variety of national, regional and international intelligence organisations will be feeding this sense of paranoia.

The Long War Journal suggests that the Hassan/Ismail situation is evidence that “unity and cohesion among various Taliban factions is in serious jeopardy”.  This might be the case – certainly the Taliban websites have studiously avoided referring to this dispute.  If faced with negative publicity that they can deny, they generally leap at the chance.  Negotiations of any sort – particularly those that involve the potential for talking to the US – are sure to throw divisions between “moderate” and hard line” groupings into a sharp relief.

However, seen in a different light, the issue might demonstrate that the Taliban are making strong steps at enforcing party discipline at a key time and that the “hardliners”, i.e. those less inclined towards dialogue (including Mullah Zakir) still hold sway.  Looking at some of the claims and accusations coming from Hassan, it does seem to read more like a personal issue in which he has been caught engaging in some suspect deals than it does a fatal strategic fracture within the Taliban.  Hassan, recognising his days are perhaps numbered, appears to be thrashing around throwing as much mud at as many of the Taliban leadership as he can.   Much of this “mud” is pretty old; Stinger missile buy-back deals from 2005; the escape (release?) of Northern Alliance warlord, Ismail Khan, in 1999; the escape of Russian pilots in 1995.

This is not to say that Hassan’s accusations are unfounded or won’t generate internal argument within the Taliban leadership.  For the moment, however, I sense that Hassan has been caught out and “gone rogue”.  Taliban internal disciplinary measures will probably repair or smooth over most of the damage done.  For him to throw out numerous accusations of corruption doesn’t guarantee any of the punches will land.  It is unclear whether he is “under arrest” – as the Long War Journal points out, he was able to make and release this video statement.  Perhaps the real risk to the Taliban would be if Hassan defected, was otherwise able to provide more damaging information, or took an influential block of supporters with him.  Neither of those currently look likely, but this is one to keep a watch on.

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